Transmigrations of text and souls

The film adaptation of David Mitchell's sprawling Cloud Atlas is dazzling and frustrating

Dizzied by the film yet delighted by the book, I dig for clues. And sure, it's right there in the source text. In David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, in a chapter about a composer in the frenzied midst of composing a sextet whose name becomes that of the book (and now the movie), the narrator explains his musical device that also reveals the novel's literary structure.

Korean actress Bae Doo-na plays an android on the verge of spiritual epiphany in Cloud Atlas .

Cloud Atlas, he describes, is "a sextet of overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished...".

The circular, arc-like architecture of Mitchell's book _ a dense novel made up of six episodes that "overlap" each other in succession _ poses the most formidable challenge for film adaptation. Plots, obviously, are filmable, even tightened and streamlined, as Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski have shown in their 170-minute movie. But style, structure, texture?

These too are fundamental in the conceptual process of Mitchell's writing, and what we now see in Cloud Atlas the film _ a sprawling, aspiring, thrilling, annoying, headlong film that wants to be revolutionary and not just gimmicky _ is a curious lesson in intertextual transfiguration. Like the movie stresses, the story in Cloud Atlas is about the transmigration of souls. The act of making the film, too, is an attempt in transporting the soul of the original pages to a new medium.

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, and now text crosses into multiplexes (to push it further, one of the directors, Lana Wachowski, formerly known as Larry, also crosses the gender boundary). And while the end result of this trans-texturisation is far short of the book's power to fascinate, the routes chosen by the three directors are the only natural ways to go about it, and it shows their understanding of the inevitable difference between letters and vision, between literature and cinema.

The book has the literary virtue (and musical structure) of lived-in experience, but the film is inherently, deeply cinematic, with its greatest devices in the editing, montage, and the ability to shift between perspectives _ it even evokes, with one eye closed, D.W. Griffith's movies. The book, as quoted, is composed as if to have six "overlapping soloists"; the movie is a symphony of competing voices that strive to pronounce the same melody.

That makes it dazzling and frustrating. Mitchell's book tells each of the six stories separately, patiently, taking time to let us feel the intimacy through each of his diverse characters: a lawyer sailing across the Pacific in the 19th century with a slave-buying contract in his chest; a young composer in Belgium on the eve of World War II; a 1970s reporter uncovering an energy scandal; a publisher in today's England who's locked up in an old folk's home; a female android on the verge of spiritual and political epiphany; and a young man in a post-apocalyptic island whose clan faces the threat of cannibalism. Through them the theme of enslavement, the cycle of barbarity, the endurance of humanity and spirit emerge in a trickle of meditative compassion.

To tell those stories as a movie, the three directors break up the narratives and intercut the six stories, painstakingly finding the "links" between them, either thematic, visual or verbal. For instance, when someone "escapes" a bad guy in one episode, the next scene is a character from another chapter making some sort of escape. Or when a door is featured in one story, another door serves as a transition to another story, and so on. That's clever, maybe too clever. Further, the "links" also come in the fact that the same actors _ Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Bae Doo-na, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant _ play several roles across the six episodes (with some jarring make-up), a performative manoeuvre that also emphasises the New-Agey reading of the book: bodies die but souls live through reincarnations. Such a grand idea is taken with the glee of a literalist, too.

By chopping up the narratives, the film deprives us of a chance to emotionally invest in the characters, as we do in the novel. The obsessive need to link the six threads _ which have only slim, in-passing connections in the novel _ spoils the continuity; the interruptions come too often, and the music becomes staccato. The tragic firework of Robert Frobisher's life, the composer who writes the Cloud Atlas sextet and who's played by Ben Whishaw, carries the weight of autumnal sadness but not the complexity of a tormented and self-mocking soul.

The relationship between Zachry (Hanks) and Meronym (Berry) is serviceable and not yet full _ and the way the film ties up their destinies is totally unexpected and, more, unnecessary. Meanwhile, Timothy Cavendish, the cranky publisher played by Broadbent, sees his comic fate elevated to late happiness, a mark of hopefulness that I find redundant. In fact, the way the whole film is bracketed _ as a bonfire yarn told by a very old man played by Hanks _ bears a sense of optimism and eager hope that departs from the book's tone of rumination and silent wonder.

The character that seems to benefit most by the Wachowskis' futuristic tableaus is Sonmi-451, the cyborg who's on the verge of spiritual and political awakening. Played by South Korean actress Bae Doo-na, Sonmi, perhaps because of her looks and her transformation from non-human to human and to divine being, becomes the anchor and thematic presence of the story about the struggle for freedom. Bae plays her episode alongside Sturgess, weirdly passing off as a Korean rebel and having a scene where he does Keanu Reeves' bullet ballet a la The Matrix. I've heard quibbles about the film having a Caucasian actor playing an Asian male, but in the story of eternal recurrences, maybe anything goes: Cloud Atlas hints that a dark-skinned race would soon rule over the rest, while an Asian is deified into a god. They cancel each other out, sort of. Because this is all about humanity. And films about humanity and how everyone on Earth is cosmically connected _ the action in the 19th century affects something in the 21st _ risk sounding preachy and self-important.

Take Babel, for example. Cloud Atlas makes sure that we know what it's about by repeating and underlining its themes through narration, editing, and especially through the grafted-on ending that, to me, spoils the mystique and a sense of marvel. And yet the film avoids the pose of self-importance because it can be exhilarating to watch, and because the editing builds up its own rhythm, a cinematic syncopation that works.

If this review sounds too much like a match-up between the book and the film, so be it. It's like when someone recalls his glorious past lives _ once he did, his new life is no longer pure and original. Read the book, or if you haven't, see the film first. Despite its shortcomings, it's worth seeing and worth trying to get your head around days after you have. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Good news: Not quite either.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist